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UofL’s ‘energy crops’ harvested for research

Someday, a 3-D printed medical implant made from hemp oil may save your life, or a hemp-based biofuel may power your vehicle.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg of possible outcomes of work being done at the University of Louisville’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, where on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 students and staff harvested “energy crops” planted near the J.B. Speed School of Engineering.

2017 marked the second year that hemp and kenaf, an African fiber plant, were planted near Phoenix House, the Conn Center’s solar-powered administrative office building. The plants were an unusual site along the Eastern Parkway overpass, where they were sown in May and were the background of many a selfie.

The plants, both highly suitable to Kentucky’s growing conditions, are part of the Conn Center’s research into biofuels and biomass conversions. The UofL crop was one of eight at Kentucky colleges and universities grown as part of the state’s pilot program into field-scale industrial hemp, but the only one that will be used for energy research.

Industrial hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa and is of the same plant species of marijuana. However it doesn’t contain high levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana that causes the marijuana high. Both hemp and marijuana are classified as Schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, and are illegal to produce in the United States.

In Kentucky, only those who are part of a Department of Agriculture research program into field-scale industrial hemp production may grow hemp. More than 3,200 acres of industrial hemp was grown in Kentucky in 2017, the department said.

The UofL crop expanded this year to a total area of just over one tenth of an acre, said Andrew Marsh, assistant director of the Conn Center.

The Conn Center’s hemp/kenaf crops were planted near Eastern Parkway, making an unusual sight for those walking along the path to and from the J.B. Speed School of Engineering.

Marsh planted the seeds in three plantings beginning in May. He had help from groundskeepers from Physical Plant and researchers from the University of Kentucky’s industrial hemp program.

After cutting down the plants, Marsh and students bundled and transported them to the Conn Center’s Science & Innovation Garage for Manufacturing Advancement, where they will dry.

“Once dried, the Conn Center’s Biofuels & Biomass Conversion group, led by Jagannadh Satyavolu, and faculty from chemical engineering, such as Noppadon Sathitsuksanoh, will work with the biomass,” Marsh said.

Marsh said the center plans to expand the crop in 2018 and hopes to improve soil quality to ensure the plants do well in their urban environment.

“In 2016 and 2017, the tendencies of different seed types to prosper in our climate and soil conditions over those that do not have become apparent,” Marsh said. “So far, we have been growing in unconditioned ‘urban clay,’ not farm soils. This year gave a better look at the nutrient deficiencies, so 2018 will include soil-conditioning strategies. There are hemp varieties that we grew that just didn’t do very well with our mix of soil, available nutrient and water, but others did great. We’ll be diversifying our seed types next year too, looking for greater yield with minimal soil modifications. This was our first full season of growing, and the results are pretty good for both kenaf and hemp.”

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The state’s hemp research program is looking into whether hemp can once again become an economic driver in the state, where it was once grown primarily for making rope.

Satyavolu, the center’s leader for biofuels and biomass conversion, along with assistant chemical engineering professor Sathitsuksanoh and students, are studying whether hurd, the innor core of the hemp plant stem, has potential for use in fuels, chemicals and polymers. Hurd is a byproduct after the outer fibers of the hemp are removed.

About the Conn Center’s research

The Conn Center research is specifically focused on

  1. Converting hemp into high value, functionalized carbons that can be used as catalyst supports and energy storage media
  2. Transforming hemp seed oil into biocompatible resins for 3-D printed medical implants
  3. Extracting sugars from hemp to convert into diesel additives and other chemicals.

In collaboration with the state, UofL established the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering in 2009. The center leads research that increases homegrown energy sources to meet the national need while reducing energy consumption and dependence on foreign oil. The center promotes partnerships among Kentucky’s colleges and universities, private industries and non-profit organizations to actively pursue federally and privately funded R&D resources dedicated to renewable energy solutions.

Researchers at the Conn Center are studying advanced energy materials manufacturing; solar energy conversion; renewable energy storage; biofuels/biomass conversions; and energy efficiency and conservation.

Mahendra Sunkara is director of the center, named in honor of Henry “Hank” and Rebecca Conn, who pledged $20 million for its formation. Hank Conn is a UofL alumnus who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the Speed School and also an MBA from the College of Business.

Check out more about this year’s harvesting process in the video below:

The Dirtbags of Dope Lake, 1976

An outlaw group of climbers living of the grid on the edge of society, couldn’t have wished for anything more spectacular then the sheer faced cliffs looming over camp.

That is until the day Cannabis fell from the sky…

John Glisky, right, pictured in Vietnam where he flew helicopters during the war

During the 1970’s a group out of DC calling themselves ‘Mota Magic’ had a plan to fly cannabis from Mexico to DC. This would need to be done skimming the ground under the cover of darkness to avoid detection…

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A ballsy flight would take a crazy pilot, John Glisky was such a man. Having flown helicopters in the Vietnam war under fire, a midnight flight skimming the mountain cliffs of America seemed like a cakewalk.

In December 1976, Glisky flew his ‘Howard 500’ plane into Mexico landing in Baja California on a makeshift runway. A crew quickly refueled the plane while loading at least 6,000 pounds (some say 10,000) of the popular sticky ‘Mexican Redhair’ variety…

The Mexican Redhair was bundled in 40 pound burlap bales with a shrink wrap interior. As a joke, some of the obvious cannabis bales were labeled ‘frijol’, spanish for ‘bean’, written with a black marker. (Some of the dirtbags report the writing of ‘quaalude’ on some bales as well.)

Flying in the darkness, Glisky hugged the treeline or the Sierra range pulling up to miss the sharp cliffs of Yosemite.

On this pass in December 1976, the cliffs of Yosemite proved too much, ripping the plane from the sky around ‘Lower Merced Pass Lake’ deep in Yosemite backcountry…

Yosemite Ranger sign posted on Merced lake raid

“It became a recovery of drudgery because we used chainsaws to cut out these bales of marijuana, which were frozen,” remembers Setnicka. “They’re heavy, they’re broken apart, they’re wet. The chainsaws were cutting ice, you know, so the chainsaw blades don’t last long. The most obvious ones we cut out, and then we had to fly this marijuana back.”

-Yosemite Park Ranger Lee Shackelton

The Yosemite Park Rangers first responded with U.S Customs and the DEA to help recover the contents of the unknown plane.

For over a week, agents of multiple agencies wrestled wet weed from the ice to be airlifted out. The cannabis collected soon filled the Yosemite jail with over 2,000 pounds being salvaged in the initial cleanup effort…

A January winter storm shutdown the recovery operation until a spring salvage mission could be planed…

A friend of Ron Lykins’ the day they discovered the plane, in 1977

To get to the frozen cannabis bales left at the crash site seemed impossible to the Rangers… Impossible for all but those already living on the edge…

The climbers that inhibited the makeshift camp 4 in Yosemite valley was such a group…

The group of climbers that lived at Camp 4 were known as ‘Valley Rats’ or the ‘Dirtbags’. They lived outside of society, living in a camp city of tents and shelters always preparing for ascent up the sheer faces above…

When a girlfriend of one of the climbers told them of the crash heard over the ranger radio, the Dirtbags wasted no time…

The Dirtbags of Camp 4 digging out cannabis bales from Lower Merced Pass Lake 1977

With tales of cannabis raining from the sky, the Dirtbags suited up…

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Packing light the group set off further into the white back country to find the crash site. Coming upon Lower Merced Pass Lake, they hit the jackpot!

Ron Lykins, shirtless, and friends holding bales of dope they hauled up from the lake. 1977

“We were pretty scared. We got the hell out of there, just carried it out wet… It was wrapped with, like, three layers of plastic, but the buds were soaking wet. Some parts were more exposed to the airplane fuel than others.”

Dawning shovels, picks, axes and chainsaws, the Dirtbags dug through feet of ice to score cannabis from the sky…

The cannabis recovered had a added smell, airplane fuel had seeped into some of the bales.

The resulting herb would sometimes spark and pop when lit while smelling of fuel giving way to the nickname of ‘airplane’ or ‘crash buds’.

The trek out was nearly impassable. Weighed down now by backpacks full of wet herb. The water seeped from their backs forming icicles numbing the body…

“We didn’t have a headlamp, so I was feeling the trail with my feet.” -Chuck Strader

Dirtbag with pick sitting next to a pile of the ‘airplane’ cannabis 1977

“By all reports it was like ants scattering,… The people up there had created this infrastructure kind of like the Vietcong put in some areas of Vietnam — makeshift housing and tents, fire pits, all sorts of tarps. They picked up digging equipment wherever they could. It was really caveman technology.”

– Yosemite Ranger Tim Setnicka

With the arrival of spring, the Rangers again made there ascent to the lake. This time armed Rangers flying in a Huey helicopter lead the mission after reports of climbers mining the site for the remaining cannabis…

Only 2 of many ‘dirtbags’ on scene were arrested, but both later had the cased dropped in court over a due process violation…

No one was ever convicted for their involvement in Dope Lake…

Bale of Mexican Redhair at Lower Merced Pass Lake 1977

“Nobody knew how much money anyone made on the Lodestar crash, But I know a few world-famous climbers who supposedly lived for more than a decade off that money. Duffle bags full of good weed”

– Dirtbag Hoffmeister

The sales of this “airplane” herb went on to fund the Dirtbags party well into the 80’s.

Ron Lykins would fund his college education paying his college tutition with the ‘airplane’ loot…

Vern Clevenger bought his first Nikon camera with the lake take, later becoming a acclaimed nature photographer enjoyed by thousands…

Even the famous climber John Bachar is rumored to have started his climbing gear company with the stash from Merced Lake…

Bachar posted a challenge note to the world in 1981 promising a “$10,000 reward for anyone who can follow me for one full day” climbing…